Monday, October 10, 2011


The Playing Board for the Ancient Game of Hounds and Jackals
Hello My Friend, and Welcome.

Today we begin a series of post on Games of the Ancient World. Board games are among the oldest known games. Extremely popular throughout the Roman Empire, they were played by both children and adults. The game we’re talking about today originated in Egypt around 1,300 BC. Its Egyptian name is lost in antiquity, and is known today by Egyptologists simply as the Hounds & Jackals game because of its unique hound and jackal- headed playing pieces.

It is a race game between a team of five Jackals and a team of five Hounds (originally peg playing pieces) around a palm tree or an oasis along a peculiar shaped 'Track' (originally a series of peg holes in a playing board). The game required strategy in the face of chance, the chance coming from the throw of two knucklebones which were an ancient form of dice. The object of the game was to get your five pieces around the track and onto the Shen hieroglyph. The Shen hieroglyph is typically associated with concepts such as eternal…universal…the infinite.

Hounds & Jackals is probably one of the most easily recognized of ancient games not only because of the distinctive look of the game pieces, but also because Hollywood has immortalized it in movies. For instance, here Pharaoah Seti (Cedric Hardwicke)  and Nefertari (Anne Baxter) - off camera on the right -   are seen playing the game in the Cecile B DeMille classic, The Ten Commandments. The man approaching from the rear is Minister Jannes (Douglas Dumbrille).

HOUND AND JACKAL PETROGLYPHSAll was well until 2003 when a group of archeologists presented an article about some Stone Age rock carvings they found in Azerbaijan. They dated these ancient petroglyphs they’d found to about 2,000 BC and their meaning, or use, remains a mystery.

Some of the rock carvings found were regular in appearance and had repeating geometric patterns. This suggests they had a specific function most likely involving counting, and unlike the other mysterious rock carvings which defy interpretation, it was suspected that meaning could be extracted from the geometric arrays. The first thought was that perhaps they were some sort of calendar. Then someone noticed their horseshoe shape was nearly identical to the board used in Hounds and Jackals.
The Azeri Petroglyph With Its Familiar Horseshoe-Shaped
Hounds and Jackals Playing Surface
The points of similarity between the Egyptian board and the carved arrays at the stone circle are remarkable. Clearly the two are closely related. Inspection of a board found at Thebes shows a larger hole at the top of the board, which is not generally counted with the others. This in effect would give it 58 +1 holes. The Azeri rock carvings have 60+1 holes. Other features in common between the two besides the central enlarged hole are a horseshoe or U-shaped outer series, two parallel straight inner lines, a similar total of dots, and interconnecting channels between the holes.

The exact rules of Hounds and Jackals have been lost to history. However, the presence of the Shen hieroglyph with its implications of eternity seem to imply that the object of the game was to metaphorically achieve some sort of immortality, or higher plain of existence.

This line of reasoning leads us to the ancient race game of India known as Snakes and Ladders.  Interestingly enough, the evil force in this game is represented (Shades of Eden) as a snake. It is a game of morality with the bases of the ladders located on squares representing various types of good. The squares of virtue in the original game are Faith, Reliability, Generosity, Knowledge, and Asceticism. The more numerous snakes coming from these squares represent various forms of evil.  The original squares of evil are Disobedience, Vanity, Vulgarity, Theft, Lying, Drunkenness, Debt, Rage, Greed, Pride, Murder, and Lust.  The game taught Hindu children that the good squares allowed a player to ascend higher in the league of life whereas evil reduced a player back through reincarnation to lower tiers of life. Presumably the last square, 100, represented Nirvana.
During the British Raj, the game made its way to England. The morality of the game appealed to Victorians who took to the game when it was published in England in1892.  Still called Snakes and Ladders, the game play was pretty much the same except that the vices and virtues were renamed according to Victorian ideals.  So Penitence, Thrift and Industry elevated a player up a ladder to squares labeled Grace, Fulfillment and Success while Indolence, Indulgence and Disobedience slid a player down to Poverty, Illness and Disgrace.  The number of ladders and snakes on the playing board were now equal.
The Modern Version of  Snakes and Ladders

The game was introduced in the United States by Milton Bradley in 1943 with several important modifications. First, the moral overtones of the game disappeared. Now the object was not to achieve moral virtue, but simply to beat your opponents to the top. Without the moral message, the snakes became unnecessary and were replaced with the more kid-friendly image of playground slides, or chutes. So the Christmas favorite, Chtues and Ladders, has its origins in ancient games played by children and adults over 4,000 years ago.

Until next time, we wish you Peace and Blessings

No comments: